Gnomeo & Juliet review

A surprise treat seemingly out of nowhere, Gnomeo & Juliet has more going for it than you might first suspect, argues Mark...

This Friday, we’re going to see a pop star vanity project splattered all over 3D screens in the form of Justin Bieber: Never Say Never. I’m not particularly familiar with this Bieber character, so to rant about him would be remiss. Especially when there’s a more enjoyable pop star project in 3D screens right now.

Sir Elton John serves as executive producer on Gnomeo & Juliet, and provides much of the soundtrack too, from that extensive back catalogue of his. As high concepts go, they don’t get much higher. The film is a ceramic retelling of a certain Shakespearean tragedy, set in the adjoining gardens of two semi-detached houses.

The gnomes in 2B’s garden wear blue hats and the garden ornaments at Not 2B wear red hats. The neighbours who live in 2B and Not 2B (geddit?) feud with one another, and so do their garden ornaments, in a war for horticultural supremacy. Blue-hatted Gnomeo has a chance meeting with red-hatted Juliet, and a star-crossed romance begins.

Believe it or not, the 2B and Not 2B stuff is the clearest indicator that you’re in for more than you’d expect from this thing. Indeed, my expectations were so low that it actually took a moment or two for that gag to register, and more Shakespeare in-jokes follow, in the vein of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s removal firm or an adhesive brand called The Taming of the Glue.

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In other animated fare, random barrages of pop culture jokes usually have no recurring theme, so it all seems uncontrolled and, very often, not that funny. The Shakespeare jokes herein feel like they have a point and purpose, especially when a character voiced by Patrick Stewart turns up to effectively demolish the fourth wall and talk about the relative merits of the Bard’s storytelling.

And, on the whole, it is something better than expected. However, it’s not above borrowing certain tropes and story beats wholesale from other animated hits. For instance, one scene involving the flamboyant plastic flamingo, Featherstone, is straight out of Toy Story 2. Surprisingly, though, as much diminished impact as there is when you recognise that scene, there is an impact nonetheless.

In this much, at least, the film does a stand-up job of ingratiating you with the characters on show beyond anything you could ever have reasonably expected from a film called Gnomeo & Juliet. There’s a nice sense of jeopardy established in how fragile the characters are. As in Toy Story, they’re inanimate objects that come to life, and thus are perfectly breakable.

It’s excitable and eclectic stuff throughout, being inventive with the premise even while simultaneously doing the obligatory exhaustion of gnome-related humour and innuendo. The film’s called Gnomeo & Juliet, so you know to expect more than a few jokes like “What’s in a gnome?”

In that regard, it’s actually possible to wonder whether or not this film has the balls to actually stick to the source material and conclude with – Shakespearean spoiler alert – both of our star-crossed lovers committing suicide in a fit of mutual confusion. I’ll let you keep wondering.

Presumably, it’s Elton John’s name that attracted such a starry cast, perhaps more so than the Disney banner. James McAvoy and Emily Blunt fill in for the lead roles originally taken by Ewan McGregor and Kate Winslet, but they’re pretty interchangeable. There’s more pleasure in hearing the tones of Michael Caine, Dame Maggie Smith and, oddly, Jason Statham. If the prospect of Jason Statham (finally) playing a gnome doesn’t sell your ticket right now, nothing can.

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Along with Statham, there’s another genuinely funny vocal turn by none other than Hulk Hogan, whose voice is instantly recognisable and entirely appropriate for the cameo in question. British TV stars Matt Lucas, Ashley Jensen and Stephen Merchant all put on slightly sillier voices for their respective turns, and each become slightly annoying at certain points in the film. Crucially, though, each of them managed to make me laugh at least once.

The whole thing is a camp, colourful and deeply eccentric affair. So eccentric, in fact, that there’s a sense of jeopardy throughout that’s often lacking in other CG animated affairs. It’s more eclectic than certain other films, and as mentioned, the source material looms large. If you assumed this is no good on first impression, you wouldn’t be the first. One of John Lasseter’s first acts when Disney acquired Pixar was to shut this production down.

Work was transferred to a sub-company of Disney’s, Touchstone Pictures, and eventually completed to be released within a couple of weeks of Disney’s big old banner half term feature, Tangled, which is somehow the second most expensive film ever made. I’m not saying that this is better than Tangled, because it’s not. Also, it might not appeal to its target audience as much as it would entertain an older crowd who are largely more cynical about it. I did enjoy it more, however.

There’s more riding on Tangled, as far as making back its hugely inflated budget, but it’s also worth giving this enjoyable and weird little animation your time.

There’s a very British slant to its eccentricity, and it’s more consistently entertaining than other would-be CG contenders from the UK, like Valiant or, to some extent, Flushed Away.

Gnomeo & Juliet will travel well, except maybe across age demographics.

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3 out of 5